"DIDNOT [sic] go to Israel," tweeted Zulfi Bukhari, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Special Assistant on Overseas Pakistanis, on Monday in response to a report in Israel Hayom claiming that Bukhari had visited Tel Aviv in November 2020 to pass on messages from Khan and Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa to Mossad head Yossi Cohen.
In December, the same newspaper reported that a "senior adviser to the leader of a large Muslim-majority country has recently visited Israel." U.K.-based counterterror analyst Noor Dahri tweeted the same day that the November 20th visit was undertaken by an unnamed close aide of Imran Khan, setting off a storm of intrigue in the region and outrage in Pakistan.
But this time around, clearly one rebuttal wasn’t enough. On Tuesday, Bukhari spiked the controversy with a chilling dose of antisemitism and flippant Holocaust exploitation.
"Those calling Jews brothers are demanding answers over rumors from me today," he tweeted, sharing a video from opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari from 2016, where he is saying, "I fear what happened to our Jewish brothers during World War II might happen to us Muslims today."
Bukhari’s jibe was pointed: Bilawal Monday called for an investigation into Pakistani government contact with Israel "done in the darkness of the night," and asked about persistent reports that a Pakistan army jet had flown to Amman at the time: "If an airplane did not pick up Zulfi Bukhari then whom did it pick up?"
The Khan aide was clearly trying to delegitimize the controversy by accusing his critics of appeasing the enemy - groveling to the Jews. It’s a strategy that, sadly, usually works in Pakistan.
Bukhari wasn’t alone in responding so quickly to close down the issue of Pakistan-Israel relations. Another aide of the Pakistani premier Dr Arslan Khalid was also quick to refute the reports as "propaganda" pushed by "Israel-India-Pak Fake news peddlars [sic]."
Despite the bluff, it was and is easy to deduce that the November 2020 visitor was Bukhari. He has a British passport and, unusually, is close to both of Pakistan’s centers of power: the civilian head, Imran Khan (tasked with campaigning for critical elections in the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan-administered Kashmir) and the military leadership (nominated to coordinate with Chinese officials on the strategic China Pakistan Economic Corridor).
When Bukhari was challenged back in December about visiting Israel, he was noticeably defensive, keen to narrate his record of sponsoring rallies for the Palestinian cause in the UK, and adding that he was suing the pro-Hamas Middle East Monitor for pushing the Israel visit story.
Ironically, he mocked what he called "conspirators" for, at least, “picking a date” for the visit when he wasn’t actually in the country. He claimed that he’d been addressing a live press conference from Karachi on November 20. Bukhari actually held that press conference on November 19.
So what was the motivation for Pakistan to risk a trip by a senior official to Israel last year, and why is the news recirculating now? The answers lie in in a seemingly strange and contradictory geopolitical quadrangle involving Pakistan, the Taliban, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Last year’s report about the Pakistani delegation to Tel Aviv came days after reports resurfaced that Saudi Arabia was pressurizing Pakistan to formalize relations with Israel. Senior military and diplomatic officials who told me at the time that Saudi Arabia was arm-twisting Pakistan over Israel, also confirmed then that Pakistani officials had indeed visited Israel.
They have further confirmed that diplomatic engagements have continued into 2021, including a meeting involving no less a personage than Pakistan’s national security advisor Moeed Yusuf, which he inevitably and categorically denied on Monday.
The fact is, diplomatic and military engagements between Pakistan and Israel have been a regular occurrence, even in past decades when formalizing ties between the two countries was inconceivable.
Both states being U.S. allies has historically meant intelligence cooperation, mediated or not, between Pakistan and Israel, with even the latest reports of Bukhari’s Tel Aviv visit emerging on the eve of the U.S. hosted ‘Sea Breeze 2021’ naval exercise in which both countries are participating. The two countries’ air forces have also jointly taken part in U.S.-led Red Flag training exercises.
However, today Pakistan is inching towards establishing formal diplomatic relations with Israel not at the behest of the U.S., but propelled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Whereas the UAE formalized its own ties with Israel last year, Saudi Arabia has held back, advancing relations (a softening up of public opinion that has dismayed Palestinians) but without official recognition. Saudi Arabia is a major influencer behind the Abraham Accords, and has been actively pushing recognition of Israel beyond the Arab world, to normalize normalization for which Pakistan, the world’s second most populous Muslim state and the only officially nuclear state, has been earmarked as the ideal candidate.
Given the Pakistan army’s lucrative dealings with Saudi Arabia, with former army chief Raheel Sharif leading the Saudi-based so-called Islamic Military Counter Terror Coalition, the push towards Israel has come from the all-powerful army, which pushed Imran Khan into power and continue to prop him up to be the democratic figurehead for decisions like these taken in the military headquarters.
Khan, reliant on the army to maintain his position, has had to move precipitously from the once-emphatic position that he would never recognize Israel, to making recognition conditional on the establishment of a Palestinian state, to now merely holding out for a "just settlement" for Palestinians.
The escalation of violence in Gaza last month underlined the precariousness of Khan’s position, as he toggled between issuing joint statements with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman condemning Israeli violence against Hamas rockets while declaring Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their missiles as "terrorists."
Even so, considering that Khan’s greatest concern with regards to any move on Israel would center around the reaction from Islamists and conservatives, who form the overwhelming majority in Pakistan, the military might have thrown him a lifeline in the form of Afghanistan.
After signaling triumph with the U.S.-Taliban deal last year, which institutionalized Pakistan’s long-held strategy of embedding militant Islamists as strategic assets, the Pakistani establishment is now working tirelessly toward establishing Taliban rule in Kabul as the U.S. withdrawal becomes imminent.
This is reflected in the narratives being peddled in the political sphere, and the Taliban-adjacent language used by Pakistan’s leadership.
Imran Khan hailed Osama bin Laden as a "martyr," no less, in parliament last year. Following in his footsteps this month the Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi - and even senior opposition leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi - refraining from calling Bin Laden a terrorist. Khan declared in an Axios interview recently that he would "absolutely not" allow the U.S. to conduct cross border counter-terrorism missions against al-Qaida, the Islamic State and the Taliban from Pakistani territory.
This grand paradox of an Islamo-supremacist, rabidly antisemitic regime simultaneously working towards establishing an Islamic Emirate next door, and forming ties with the Jewish state, is all thanks to the self-serving flexibility of the military establishment in maintaining contrasting bedfellows.
Much of the street power that is likely to violently resist any move on Israel comes from Islamist parties that sympathize with the Taliban, and are major stakeholders in a Taliban government now being established in Kabul.
Among those is Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) Chief Fazlur Rehman, currently heading an opposition alliance against Khan’s government, who has serially invited the Taliban to join his party and who in January spearheaded a "million man march" featuring video addresses by Hamas leaders, against any normalization with Pakistan’s "enemy," Israel.
Incentivizing these Islamist groups by cosying up to the Taliban could mean a limited pacification with the military having less to do when the inevitable demonstrations do come against ties with Israel.
While the Pakistan army is safeguarding its own financial interests, and looking to match India’s purchase and use of Israeli weaponry, the Khan government has learnt the cost of saying no to Saudi.
Riyadh pushed Pakistan to immediately pay up $2 billion worth of loans ahead of schedule following a shocking snub of Riyadh from Islamabad. After seemingly falling back in line, Khan was invited to Saudi Arabia last month, where agreements were put back on the table as the Pakistani premier succumbed to Mohammed bin Salman’s long-standing demand for vocal support on Yemen.
The Imran Khan government, already at the mercy of the military, now needs Saudi support (as much as it needs China) for basic sustenance. To ensure his government’s survival over the next two years till general elections, Khan would need to sell Talibanization in Afghanistan, diplomacy with Israel, and potentially a compromise on Kashmir with India, which the UAE has taken up as its pet project.
India, meanwhile, appears to be working towards undoing Pakistan’s plans for the region, as it stakes its own claim to filling at least part of the vacuum left behind by the U.S. in Afghanistan, with New Delhi entering negotiations with the Taliban.
India’s engagement with the Taliban is understandably riling up Pakistani officials given that Islamabad’s decades-old bid to prop up an Islamist regime in Afghanistan is to not only enhance Pakistan’s influence in the region, but also to counter "Hindu India."
To have those plans derailed by a hardline Hindutva regime would be the stuff of nightmares for Islamabad. It would also unravel Pakistani military’s grand bargain with the Islamists and Khan over Israel.
In the meantime, as Pakistani officials work on keeping the Taliban away from India, Khan and his advisors have to try and dodge political bullets with lousy denials of contact with Israel they are finding increasingly hard to conceal.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune